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Kurdish Citations Kurdish Links Select a New Language
Number of Speakers: 13 million
Key Dialects: Northern, Central, Southern
Geographical Center: Iran, Iraq, Turkey
Kurdish, as a term, is often used to refer to two separate but closely related language variants: Kurmanji (or Northern Kurdish) and Kurdi (Southern Kurdish). Kurdi (sometimes Sorani) is spoken in Iraq (2.8 million people), and in Iran (3 million people), especially in regions bordering on Iraq and in a small enclave in the northeastern province of Korasan.
Kurmanji (sometimes Kurmanci) is mostly confined to Turkey (4 million) and northern Iraq (2.8 million). It is also spoken in Syria (500,000); Armenia (100,000) in regions bordering Iraq; and in Iran (100,000) south of Armenia and east of Iraq. There are unknown numbers of speakers in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Smaller communities speak the language (about 70 thousand) in Lebanon and in Europe, the US, and Canada.
Total speakers of Kurdi probably number about 6 million and Kurmanji speakers about 7 million, although some authorities cite a total of 20 million. Estimates of ethnic Kurds, not all of whom speak Kurdish today because of assimilation, also are high. Some people who regard themselves as Kurds speak Gurani and Zaza (or Dimli), closely related Indo-European languages of a non-Kurdish group.
(The name Kurmanji is also used apparently as a cover term to refer to both Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji proper, mainly spoken in Turkey, and Southern Kurdish or Sorani, mainly spoken in Iraq.)
Kurdish is a Indo-European language belonging to the Iranian branch. It is a member of the Western subgroup of Iranian languages which include Persian and Baluchi.
Kurdish is diverse dialectally with geographical variation. Kurdi and Kurmanji are generally regarded as separate languages (McCarus 1992); while lexical similarity between the two is high, grammatical differences abound and mutually intelligibility is a problem. Others regard them as dialects of the same language to reflect their common origin and divide them as follows: Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji; Central or Sorani; and Southern, spoken in the area of Bakhtaran, Iran (Kreyenbroek 1994). Each of these groups are dialectally diverse in turn. Some authorities recognize a two-way split between Northern and Southern by collapsing Central and Southern as one (McCarus 1992). Within each of these geographical regions other distinctions are possible. The dialect of the town of Sulaimaniya, Iraq is recognized as a standardized literary version. Another standard is apparently developing among Kurds in exile (Kreyenbroek 1992:68). In Iran, written Kurdish is based on the Mukri subdialect of Sorani; it differs only slightly from the Sulaimaniya standard.
A modified Arabic script is used to write Kurdish in Iraq and Syria, but Kurds in Turkey use a Roman-based script. In Armenia and other former Soviet republics, a Cyrillic script is used but a Roman script was in use until 1946, and is apparently still used by some.
Kurdish has thirty-one consonant phonemes some of which have entered the language through borrowing from Arabic; and five long and four short vowel phonemes. Stem-final vowels are regularly stressed, but stress is somewhat complicated and predictable morphologically. No vowel sequences are permitted.
Unmarked or bare nouns can have "singular, generic, or indefinite plural meaning." Nouns are marked, usually by morphemes suffixed to the noun, for number and definiteness; nouns are not marked either for gender or case (while Kurmanji is). Adjectives similarly are marked by suffixes for number and degree (comparative or superlative). Pronouns are distinguished for number and person and exist independently or as suffixes; independent pronouns are used for emphasis.
Verbs are marked for tense, aspect, transitivity, voice, mood, person, and number. Verbs exist in two stems types: present (the base for Present tense) and past (the base for several past tenses). Verbs subcategorize into two groups: imperfectives (marked by a prefix) and perfectives. There are three moods, indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. Most of these distinctions are marked by suffixes on the stem.
Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) is the basic word order. Noun plus modifier (adjective, noun, pronoun, etc.) is the normal pattern. Such phrases are linked by a morpheme called izafa (noun + link (izafa) + modifier). There are also some modifiers (interrogatives, quantifiers, numerals, and demonstratives) which precede the noun without any morphological link. (This sketch is based on McCarus 1992)
ROLE IN SOCIETY
In Iran, 90 percent of Kurds live in villages, the rest are nomadic. With a checkered history of acceptance and repression of Kurdish in modern Iran, a thriving literature in Iran has been slow to develop. Since 1984 government policy has been open: Kurdish is permitted in schools in Kurdish areas; a stream of publications has begun to appear, and there is long-wave external broadcasts in Kurdish as well as regional broadcasts on medium-wave radio in Kurdish and other minority languages.
In Kurdistan in Iraq, the language has official regional status and since 1919 it is the language of instruction in public schools. There is at least one Kurdish-language newspaper in Iraq and at least one publisher that puts publications out in Kurdish as well as Arabic, Turkish, English and French. There are both TV and radio broadcasts in Kurdish. Iraqi Kurds have established the urban dialect of Sulaimaniya as a literary language and have attempted to rid it of its Arabic borrowings which characterize the spoken dialect on which it is based.
In Turkey in 1938, Kurdish was banned; any public usage was sanctioned and an individual using Kurdish in public could be fined. During this time Kurdish lost ground, bilingualism increased, and very few learned to read or write their language. In 1961, with a new Turkish constitution, Kurdish publications began to appear, often bilingual, but frequently banned as soon as they appeared. Moreover, since 1967 through the late 80s there was a hardening of attitude and a series of laws were promulgated which are intended to repress the use of Kurdish. In 1991, however, the Turkish government declared its intention to legalize the use of Kurdish. Kurds in Turkey who no longer speak their language nevertheless symbolically regard it as proof of their ethnic identity.
Armenian Kurds, at least under the Soviets, were productive in producing Kurmanji works.
In 1934, attempts were made among the Kurds in Armenia to adopt Kurmanji as the literary standard for all Kurds, but the attempt failed. There have been other efforts among academics to reconcile differences between Kurmanji and Sorani, but these too have met with little success. For Kurmanji there was a literary tradition that started in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, waned in the 18th and 19th centuries, but taken up again by mainly immigrant Kurds in Syria and in Europe after the French mandate ended in Syria in 1945. It is these ÈmigrÈs who have been the main participants engaged in turning out works in this dialect in modern times. Exiled Kurds in Syria published the first Kurdish Kurmanji newspaper in Roman-based script in Damascus in 1932; this was the first in a long series of publications produced in exile.
In the south in Iran, a related language, Gurani, was a literary language used along with Persian and Arabic, but the works produced have played no role in the development of a modern literature, whereas, the poetry produced since the late 18th century in the Sulaimaniya variant of Sorani, in what is now Iraq, has. In the early 20s newspapers began to be published in Sulaimaniya; in 1931 Sorani Kurdish was officially recognized by Iraqi authorities and began to be used in primary schools. In 1958 and again in 1970, Kurdish gained various degrees of official recognition, literary output increased and flourished, and literacy through education became a fact, but the gains made in those years in the direction of linguistic autonomy and productivity have eroded. The effect of the Gulf War in 1991 on Kurdish is unclear.
Campbell, G. L. 1991. Compendium of the World's Languages, Vol. 1 -2. London and New York: Routledge.
Comrie, B. ed. 1987. The World's Major Languages. New York: Oxford University Press.
Grimes, B. F. (ed.) 1992. Ethnologue, Languages of the World. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics.
Kreyenbroek, P. G. 1992. "On the Kurdish language." In P. G. Freyenbroek and S. Sperl, eds. The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, pp. 68-83. London and New York: Routledge.
Kreyenbroek, P. G. 1994. "Kurdish." In R.E. Asher, The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Vol. 4:1880-1881. Oxford: Pergamon Press.
Linguistic Society of America. 1992. Directory of Programs in Linguistics in the United States and Canada. Washington, DC.
McCarus, E. N. 1992. "Kurdish." In W. Bright, ed. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, Vol. XX, 289-294. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Payne, J. R. 1987. "Iranian Languages." In B. Comrie, ed. The World's Major Languages, pp. 514-522. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ruhlen, M. 1987. A Guide to the World's Languages, Vol. 1: Classification. London: Edward Arnold.
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